This content contains affiliate links. When you buy through these links, we may earn an affiliate commission.
The importance of literacy is well documented and acknowledged. Over the past few decades, media literacy has been racing to take its rightful place in the collective awareness of necessary skills in today’s changing world. Major strides have been made, both in terms of education and legislature, to ensure that media literacy becomes intrinsic in society. On top of that, there are several actions that you can take to improve your own media literacy, as well as advocate for increased media literacy education.
Before we get to that, however, let’s brush up on the terminology.
What is Media Literacy?
Merriam-Webster defines literacy as “the quality or state of being literate, especially: ability to read and write.” It is an accurate, if simplistic, definition: after all, reading the instruction manual of an Ikea dresser doesn’t require the exact same skills as reading an article on an upcoming election. Different levels of knowledge and critical thinking are engaged (and I say this as someone who struggles to assemble an Ikea anything).
Alberta Education’s definition of literacy as “the ability, confidence and willingness to engage with language to acquire, construct and communicate meaning in all aspects of daily living” is closer to what I think of when I hear this word. It’s a skill set we should cultivate in order to live in a society where language is the primary means of communication.
But we’re not only talking and writing to each other: in a lot of ways, media of all kinds is so much a part of our lives that it’s rare to go a single day without interacting with it. Reading a news report, listening to a podcast, scrolling down social media; these are all ways in which media takes up our time. And it’s not just about words: understanding a meme is also part of engaging with media.
The Center for Media Literacy defines media literacy as “a framework to access, analyze, evaluate, create and participate with messages in a variety of forms — from print to video to the Internet.” In other words: media literacy gives you the tools to become adept at adequately processing information in various formats, to distinguish between fact and fiction, and to create these messages yourself.
Media literacy is an ongoing learning curve, and one may be skilled at one level while having trouble with another. For example, somebody might be excellent at video editing (and thus be able to understand the power of editing in framing any given message) and also have trouble at identifying reputable sources of news.
A Little History
Media literacy research goes a long way back, and its main focus has shifted along with technology. In the 1930s and ’40s, a group of writers, activists, and scholars began to pay attention to the key role that language plays in shaping our world. In this vein was Science and Sanity by Alfred Korzybski, a 1933 book that emphasized, in Michael Robb Grieco and Renee Hobbs‘ words, the “need for heightened awareness of the power of symbols on human consciousness and social action.”
The Institute for Propaganda Analysis, formed in 1937 and closed in 1942, declared that only noticing propaganda was “not enough in the struggle to maintain democracy in an era of mass persuasion.” If the late ’30s and early ’40s were a time of mass persuasion, one wonders what the 2020s would be known as. Mass persuasion times infinity?
This concern for the messages that people were exposed to didn’t abate with the end of the war. In the 1950s, the prevalence of television had given rise to many worried parents and educators. The first Congressional hearing on media violence took place in 1952, and the awareness of harmful uses of media only continued to grow. Many media literacy educations focus on countering such negative uses and effects, while others focus on building tools for personal and social advancement. These two main groups, under which several subgroups gather together, are known as the protectionist and empowerment strands respectively.
Still, although the main perspective varies, the two paradigms can and do coexist under the National Association for Media Literacy Education (NAMLE). From my perspective, they only complement each other.
The early days of communication studies were focused on the possible harmful effects of media, as Robb Grieco and Hobbs explained in their 2013 paper “A Field Guide to Media Literacy Education in the United States.” Although a new paradigm arose a few decades later, the protectionist perspective remains strong in the advocacy for media literacy education. It seeks to help people identify and resist negative media influence, with a focus on protecting vulnerable and historically oppressed communities.
If the ’30s-’50s were all about protectionist paradigms, the ’60s and ’70s saw the birth of an empowerment perspective. Spearheaded by scholars like Paulo Freire and Neil Postman, it’s focused on helping individuals to become active and knowledgeable citizens. Media is treated as a tool that can facilitate the acquisition of new skills and knowledge and bring communities together. This strand is influenced by John Dewey.
Media literacy education (MLE)
Where Are We Now?
Media Literacy Now’s 2022 U.S. Media Literacy Report examines the status of media literacy education laws for K-12 schools in states where legislative progress has been accomplished. Written by Erin McNeill, it identifies media literacy as “traditional literacy plus the application of critical thinking to media in today’s world” and urges Americans to remember that “this is the time to act. We need media literacy now.”
One thing that fosters hope for the advancement of MLE laws is that it’s often a bipartisan effort (or nonpartisan, in the case of Nebraska). What, exactly, this advancement looks like changes on a state-by-state basis. In Delaware, for example, a law put into effect in August 2022 requires the Department of Education to write standards for media literacy from K-12. New Mexico, on its part, dictates that media literacy be offered as an elective in high schools. Several other states, including Washington and Connecticut, have also passed laws for the advancement of media literacy education.
Still, there’s a long way to go: as of 2022, only 18 states have media literacy education of any kind at the legislative level.
Who Benefits From a Lack of Media Literacy Education?
One might think that passing media literacy education laws is a no-brainer. And it would be — if a lot of powerful people didn’t benefit from large swaths of society lacking the tools and skills needed to identify misinformation, advocate for themselves and others, and further equity. It’s telling that only 36% of USA states have MLE laws, while 84% of adults think that MLE should be a requirement in more states (per the Policy Report).
How to improve your own media literacy
Ask yourself the Five Key Questions
The Center for Media Literacy listed five key questions somebody should ask when interacting with any sort of media:
- Who created this message?
- What creative techniques are used to attract my attention?
- How might someone understand this message differently than me?
- What values, lifestyles, and points of view are represented in, or omitted from, this message?
- Why is this message being sent?
Asking these questions helps to delve deeper into the core concepts of media literacy:
- All media messages are “constructed.”
- Media messages are constructed using a creative language with its own rules.
- Different people experience the same media message differently.
- Media have embedded values and points of view.
- Most media messages are organized to gain profit and/or power.
Stay Up to Date on Technological Advances
The topic of artificial intelligence is currently being discussed everywhere, but how much do we actually know about it? It pays to stay (relatively) up to date on both what new technology can do and what its potential benefits and pitfalls can be. Joyce Grant, author of Can You Believe It? How to Spot Fake News and Find the Facts, brought this up when I asked her about how to tell facts from fiction: “There’s been studies that show that once people understand what technology makes possible, and how to make fake things, that they’re less likely to be fooled by fake things.” She used Photoshop as an example and the importance of knowing “how to look for an elongated arm, or a distorted background.”
Avoid Informational Overload and Media Overstimulation
We can’t stay glued to various forms of media 24/7 unless we’re willing to buy a one-way ticket to overwhelm. However, it can be hard to strike the right balance between being well-informed and being swept away by the tide. In my never-ending efforts to find that balance, I turned to David Flier, responsible for one of my favorite (literal) newsletters: GPS AM, an Argentine newsletter that gathers the main news items from various sources of different ideological leanings.
I asked David how he avoids becoming overwhelmed by the tidal wave of news, considering that submerging himself in them is his job. He said that he tries to “avoid news with an excess of negativity or interpretations of negative facts that don’t bring [him] anything new.” He also avoids being glued to breaking news all day: “I dedicate specific moments to informing myself, and then I devote myself to other journalistic tasks (that aren’t so tied to the now) and personal or recreational activities.”
Keep a List of Credible Sources
And by credible, I mean sources that you’ve already fact-checked and know to be thorough and reliable. Both Joyce and David emphasized the importance of this, with the latter adding that “to verify a piece of information that isn’t official, I compare various media sources to observe similarities or differences.”
Learn How to Look for Information
Sometimes, knowing what to look for is half the work. Robin Bradford, a librarian in Washington state, recalls: “When I did do reference, we frequently got people coming to the desk with partial information or completely wrong information. We assist them by continuously asking questions (commonly called a reference interview) until we get at what they actually want.” Robin elaborates: “Someone might come to the desk and say “Whatever happened with Japanese internment?” And that is a HUGE question. Do they want to know how it ended? Do they want to know how it started? What this particular person wanted to know was who was involved in the court case and what was the disposition of it. But they didn’t know to ask for Korematsu, so they came to the desk with the question they could form. Continuously asking questions, to narrow it down, got to what they wanted. Eventually.”
This is extra important if you’re looking by yourself instead of with the help of a librarian. If that’s the case, make sure you know the ins and outs of search engines, too.
Media literacy education is a never-ending process. Not only will there always be a new media form in our fast-paced world, there is always more to learn about existing ones — and there are always people who will use them to do harm. But we can learn how to wield these tools in order to interact critically with media, improve our communication skills, and advocate for ourselves and others. In this way, the protectionist and empowerment paradigms complement each other.